Cradle to Grave
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Cradle to Grave

by Eleanor Kuhns

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Will Rees is adjusting to life on his Maine farm in 1797, but he's already hungering for the freedom of the road, and his chance to travel comes sooner than he expects. Lydia has just received a letter from her old friend Mouse, a soft-spoken and gentle woman who now lives in the Shaker community in Mount Unity, New York. To Lydia and Rees's astonishment, she's in


Will Rees is adjusting to life on his Maine farm in 1797, but he's already hungering for the freedom of the road, and his chance to travel comes sooner than he expects. Lydia has just received a letter from her old friend Mouse, a soft-spoken and gentle woman who now lives in the Shaker community in Mount Unity, New York. To Lydia and Rees's astonishment, she's in trouble with the law. She's kidnapped five children, claiming that their mother, Maggie Whitney, is unfit to care for them.

Despite the wintry weather and icy roads, Rees and Lydia set out for New York, where they sadly conclude that Mouse is probably right and the children would be better off with her. There's nothing they can do for Mouse legally, though, and they reluctantly set out for home. But before they've travelled very far, they receive more startling news: Maggie Whitney has been found murdered, and Mouse is the prime suspect.

In Cradle to Grave, Eleanor Kuhns returns with the clever plotting, atmospheric historical detail, and complexly drawn characters that have delighted fans and critics in her previous books.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
At the start of Kuhns’s intriguing third late-18th-century historical (after 2013’s Death of a Dyer), traveling weaver Will Rees and his new wife, Lydia, leave their Maine farm for a wintry trip to the isolated village of Dover Springs, N.Y., where their Shaker friend, Sister Hannah, aka “Mouse,” has been accused of kidnapping Maggie Whitney’s five children after finding their mother too drunk to care for them. En route, Will and Lydia get word that Maggie has been murdered, probably by Mouse. On arrival in Dover Springs, Will struggles to pry information out of the close-mouthed residents, nearly all of whom prove to be hiding dreadful secrets. At times, the tribulations of the impoverished Whitney children threaten to overwhelm the story, but readers will sympathize with Will, whose interactions with the children spur deep guilt about how uninvolved he was in the raising of David, his grown son. Agent: Mitchell S. Waters, Curtis Brown. (June)
From the Publisher

“Kuhns hits all the right notes--a clever plot, well-rounded characters and a rich sense of place, time and culture--as she successfully weaves all elements together into an intelligent whole.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch

“The third in this series is notable for developing the characters of Will and Lydia, whose personal lives take a turn in the closing pages. Another eminently readable historical mystery, set in the post-Revolutionary years, from librarian Kuhns.” —Booklist

“Vivid and historically accurate…The atmosphere is often grim, as secrets are kept and revealed. Kuhns brings the political and social customs of the time to life with telling details and exact language.” —RT Book Reviews (4½ stars)

“Intriguing…readers will sympathize with Will, whose interactions with the children spur deep guilt about how uninvolved he was in the raising of David, his grown son.” —Publishers Weekly

Kirkus Reviews
Revolutionary War veteran Will Rees' third case takes him from his home in Maine to the Shaker community of Mount Unity, New York, where accusations of child neglect blossom into murder.Hannah "Mouse" Moore, an old friend of Rees and his bride, Lydia, is in unexpected trouble in Mount Unity, whose elders have accused her of kidnapping. And with good reason, for when Rees and Lydia (Death of a Dyer, 2013, etc.) make the journey to Dover Springs, the little town near Albany where the community has put down roots, they find that Mouse freely admits carrying off Maggie Whitney's four children and a foundling she'd taken in as well. It was for the children's own good, she insists; Maggie was criminally neglecting Jerusha, 8; Simon, 7; Nancy, 5; Judah, 2; and tiny Joseph, the foundling. When Rees and Lydia visit Maggie, she's obviously drunk; there's nothing in the house to eat; and she's apprenticed the precociously well-spoken Simon to neighboring farmer Tom Baker. In a community that's a law unto itself, however, Mouse doesn't have a leg to stand on legally, and the best Rees can do is to smooth the waters and ingratiate himself with the locals and selectmen before he and Lydia head back home. No sooner have they set forth on their return, however, than they're recalled to Mount Unity by the news that Maggie has been found dead in an open grave, with Mouse the obvious suspect. It falls to Rees to pester her friends and neighbors with endless questions—one of them aptly compares him to "a biting flea"—until the truth about Maggie's tangled history finally emerges.An improbable opening gambit and the gathering revelations of even more improbable extramarital relations that abundantly justify Rees' verdict—"These incestuous small towns!"—make this the weakest of his three period adventures to date.
Library Journal
Will Rees, an 18th-century itinerant weaver from Maine, returns in his third historical (after Death of a Dyer). This time he and Lydia help a Shaker friend in New York who has been accused of murder. Librarian Kuhns won the Minotaur Books/MWA First Crime Novel competition in 2011.

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Will Rees Mysteries Series, #3
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
8.40(w) x 5.40(h) x 1.40(d)

Related Subjects

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

When Rees heard the buggy rattle up the drive, he left his loom and went downstairs to meet his wife of two months in the kitchen. Lydia had thrown her cloak over a kitchen chair and was intent upon the letter in her hand. Her mouth was trembling. He hurried to her side and put his arm around her shoulders.

“What happened?” he asked. “Is it bad news?”

“Nothing like that,” she said, brandishing the letter. “It’s from the Elders at Zion.”

Rees smiled. Zion was the Shaker community in Maine where they had first met. He’d been searching for his runaway son and she living on the outskirts of the Shaker community.

“Ahh, another offer to buy your farm?” Since she’d inherited it from her previous husband, the Zion Elders had expressed interest in purchasing the property several times. And Lydia was eager to sell. She felt that the farm was cursed.

“No.” She shook her head. “I mean, yes, Elder Hitchens mentions it.”

“We’ll deal with that when the weather turns this spring.” A traveling weaver by profession, Rees was also a wanderer by nature, and he took any excuse to return to the open road. He was especially eager to leave Dugard now, after he’d hit his brother-in-law Sam Prentiss and knocked him into a mounting block. Remembering the sound of Sam’s head hitting the granite block and the red blood blooming from his head sent a shudder through Rees. And the resulting injury had left Sam touched. If it weren’t winter, Rees would be eager to leave.

“But that’s not the primary reason for this letter,” Lydia rushed on. “Elder Hitchens encloses a letter from Mouse.”

“Mouse?” Rees repeated, his voice lifting in surprise. Hannah Moore, also known as Mouse, was a Sister at Zion. Although the uncertain mail service meant they heard from her infrequently, both Rees and Lydia still considered her a good friend.

“Mouse is no longer at Zion,” Lydia said, sliding an interior sheet from the outside page.

“No longer at Zion?” Rees asked. “Did something happen? Why did she leave?” He paused, thinking. He knew Mouse had been happy at Zion, and she had family living nearby. He added with a twinge of remorse, “Did the Elders transfer her? Is she in trouble for helping me last spring?”

“I don’t know. Sometime last summer she was transferred to Mount Unity near Dover Springs, New York, and is now a member of the Second Family. Her note to the Elders in Zion begs for our aid.”

“Our aid? For what?” Rees’s heart sank. He would always help Mouse, of course, but he didn’t favor a long trip in February.

“Mouse is accused of kidnapping.” Lydia handed the letter to Rees.

Kidnapping? Mouse? Astonished, he skimmed the carefully printed lines. “I beg you,” Mouse wrote to Elder Hitchens, “please locate Will Rees and Lydia Jane Farrell. I know they will help me with the charge of kidnapping.” The note attached by Elder Herman of Dover Springs yielded some additional information. Mouse did not deny taking the children, but claimed their mother was unfit. The town officials of Dover Springs refused to intervene and Sister Hannah was now restricted to Mount Unity, forbidden to leave for any purpose, even to visit the distressed family.

Rees brought the letter to the fireside and held it closer to the yellow light of the leaping flames. Elder Herman had written crosswise over Mouse’s lines and his elegant cursive was difficult to read.

“He says that Mouse is much distraught, unable to accomplish her tasks and eating poorly,” Lydia said, moving to Rees’s side. “And why would she be accused of kidnapping? We must help her.” She tipped her face up to look into her husband’s and put her hand upon his arm. “If this is true, and she broke a law, she may be expelled from the Shakers. Where would she go then?”

Rees looked down into his wife’s upturned face, still startled sometimes by the mobcap of a married woman over her red hair instead of the Shakers’ white linen square. Although no longer a Shaker when he met her, she’d lived near Zion and maintained the Shaker ways. “It’s February, Lydia,” he said. “The roads are near impassable and the weather chancy at best. The Shakers would not be so cruel.” He was more concerned about the prospect of finding Mouse in jail. Or even worse, the target of a vigilante.

“But this is Mouse,” Lydia said, looking up at Rees. He saw to his horror that her eyes were full of tears. “We must help her.” She took the letter from him. “Mouse wrote this in December, before Christmas. She’s been waiting for us for nearly two months. And,” she added, “this document cost me nearly three dozen eggs. I went to Borden’s for candles and Mr. Borden gave me the letter.” Rees nodded. Although there was a postmaster general and miles of post roads, letters still went to taverns and general stores, and the proprietors charged whatever they wished.

“So we’ll be short of both eggs and candles,” Rees said with a sigh. Lydia nodded. The chickens laid fewer eggs in the winter and this one had seemed particularly severe to Rees. Maybe that was because he’d spent the winters of the previous few years further south, weaving for farmwives in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. It felt strange to be home for so long; in fact, it would be unbearable if Lydia weren’t here.

“Mouse doesn’t even know we’re married,” Lydia said, looking up at Rees.

“I know,” he said. He stroked her cheek gently. “If it were later in the spring…”

“Please, Will. David can handle the farm in our absence,” Lydia said. “We can take the sleigh.”

Rees shook his head. “You said New York, did you not? Perhaps it isn’t cold and snowy in New York. We would be marooned in the sleigh.” He paused, comparing the wagon and the buggy in his mind. The former, although heavier, had no covering, and he was loath to travel a distance with no protection from the elements.

“Then we must take the stage,” Lydia said, her voice rising. “I don’t want Mouse to think we’ve forgotten her.”

“She’s living in Mount Unity, not homeless and living on the road,” Rees said, exasperated.

“What if that community expels her? She has no family in New York.” Lydia’s mouth trembled in distress.

“I doubt Mouse will be expelled,” Rees replied, putting a hand on her shoulder to calm her. “Especially not now. They would not be so cruel. The Elders in Zion allowed you to remain near the community.”

“Elder White was kind,” she agreed.

He hesitated and added tentatively, “The weather will surely break in six weeks or so.…” He would gladly make the journey then.

Frowning, Lydia shook her head. “She’s waited long enough. Will, she’s relying on us. We must help her. Please.”

Rees heaved a sigh, but he couldn’t bear seeing Lydia so upset. “The stage will take too long. And I would rather have my own vehicle. I’ll speak with Mr. Wheeler at the livery stable and see what he might recommend.” He glanced out the window. The bright sun glittered on the snow and sent melted water dripping from the icicles, promising an illusory balminess. The buggy still sat outside the weathered gray barn, waiting for David’s attention. “There’s several hours before dark,” Rees said. “I’ll drive into Dugard now and talk to Wheeler and be back in time for supper.” Lydia nodded and tucked the letter behind the candlesticks on the mantel. Rees went out to saddle Bessie. He realized as he rode down the snow-packed drive that somehow, without even realizing it, he’d agreed to make this ill-advised journey.

*   *   *

“Mr. Wheeler strongly advised us not to travel until the weather breaks,” Rees said when he sat down to supper a few hours later.

“What did you say?” Lydia demanded.

Rees shifted uncomfortably under her scrutiny. “That you were fixed upon this course.” She did not often display an absolute inflexibility on a decision but when it struck, Rees knew better than to argue.

“Good. What else did he say?”

“He reminded me of the fights I jumped into as a boy,” he said. He tried to pass it off as of no importance, but she knew him too well.

“The beast,” she murmured, referring to the term Rees used for his temper. “Did he criticize you for striking Sam?”

“No. Congratulated me. Wheeler said Sam is a difficult man.” Rees managed a faint smile, although his throat closed up with guilt and shame. Lydia patted his hand. She knew how much the fight and its aftermath troubled her husband. He would not have chosen to travel in the depths of winter, but he would be glad to escape the accusation that suffused every one of his conversations here in Dugard. “Wheeler recommended taking either the buggy or renting a gig from him. We will want a roof over our heads in the event of snow or, less likely, rain. He further suggested we follow the stage route, as the roads will likely be more passable. Some of the stages are equipped with rollers that flatten the snow and make a smooth hard-packed surface.”

“Did he say how long such a journey might take?” Lydia asked, her brow creasing as she began to plan.

“Two weeks or so if nothing untoward happens. We’ll have to change horses at the stagecoach stops, and I expect we’ll have to spend several nights at the local inns.”

“This is beginning to sound expensive,” Lydia said.

“Indeed. Besides the aforementioned, we’ll also have expenses for food and tolls.…” Rees paused, thinking of the strongbox upstairs and the coins inside, last summer’s earnings. He’d spent very little of it.

“When I sell the Ellis farm to the Elders in Zion we’ll recoup all we’ve spent and more,” Lydia promised. “Will we take Bessie?”

“No,” Rees said, shaking his head. “She is coming to the end of her working life. Soon I shall have to invest in another Bessie to pull my wagon.” Bessie number four. “We won’t take Amos either. I arranged to rent a horse from Mr. Wheeler. Since he engages in regular custom along the post roads, we can switch horses as needed, and his horses will be returned to him. I am not so sure that will happen if I take any of mine. Besides, David will need ours.” He paused. He didn’t look forward to sharing these plans with his son. Although their relationship had improved over the last six months or so, David still blamed his father for leaving him with his aunt and uncle after his mother’s death. Rees had to travel; his weaving brought in the money that helped support the farm, but abandoning his son to the cruelty of his sister and brother-in-law had been a mistake. David’s anger still surfaced every now and then, especially when his father left on another journey. Rees accepted it, understanding that it would take a long time for David to forgive him.

“I’ll write a response to Mouse and Elder Herman,” Lydia said. “With mail service being the way it is, we’ll probably reach Dover Springs before the letters, but just in case we’re held up along the way.”

“Likely we will be,” Rees said, envisioning snowstorms and icy roads. He gathered Lydia into his arms and kissed her forehead. “But we’ll be together.”

“Together where?” David asked, coming into the warm kitchen from the barns. “Where are you going?” Snow coated his hat and had frozen into ice particles in the scarf wound over his mouth. He stepped back, his face and neck coloring as he took in the embrace. Lydia and Rees broke apart, exchanging a glance.

“A friend of ours is in trouble,” Rees said.

“A good friend,” Lydia agreed, jumping in to forestall the scowl gathering upon David’s face.

“She needs us … we’ll only be away for a little while.…” Rees stumbled to a stop, silenced by his son’s glare.

“It’s winter,” David objected. “I thought at least you’d stay home for the winter.”

“You don’t need me here, not right now,” Rees said, realizing he’d thrown fuel on the fire as soon as he’d spoken.

“I do need you,” David said. “Why won’t you ever stay home?”

“I’m a traveling weaver; that’s what I do,” Rees said. He knew David could never understand the hunger for new experiences that kept his father on the road, weaving for a living, instead of toiling on the farm.

“This time I asked him,” Lydia said, taking a step toward David.

“I’ll wager he didn’t say no,” David said angrily. “You’ll see. He’ll never stay home. Not even for you.”

Rees saw Lydia swallow, her distress evident, and he put an arm around her.

“He must travel,” Lydia said softly. “Weaving is his livelihood. The money he earns supports us.”

“He could weave here, in town.” David glared at his father. “You’re running away just like you did after Mother died.” The words hung in the air. Although Rees opened his mouth, he could not argue. This time, David was right; Rees was running away. Sam’s injury hung between him and his neighbors. He saw recrimination even in the glances of his friends. And from those who disliked him? There were the sudden silences when he approached, and sometimes people would even rise from their chairs and leave when he entered a room. David continued. “A lot of people in town blame you for Uncle Samuel, blame you because he’s touched in the head now. You need to stay and fight for yourself.”

Rees could think of nothing to say. His friend and attorney George Potter’s sworn testimony, that Rees had hit Sam only in self-defense, had pulled Rees out of the fire. And Sam’s injury could be construed as accidental; he’d fallen and hit his head on the mounting block. But Rees knew that many people did blame him and, worse, he blamed himself. How many nights had he woken up in a cold sweat wishing he’d pulled his punch or kicked Sam’s feet out from under him. Something else, anything else. But the beast, his anger, had put power behind his punch and Sam had gone down like a felled tree, cracking his head on the granite mounting stone. “It’s not that simple,” Rees said. “People here think I’m one step removed from a murderer.”

“So go ahead,” David said. “Run away. Again.” The implication that Rees was a coward stung and he spoke quickly.

“I’ll return in time for spring planting.” But David pulled on his old coat and stamped out the door without replying. Rees took a few steps after his son.

“He wants you home,” Lydia said, putting her hand on her husband’s sleeve. Rees looked down into her face. “He’s had a lot of change lately,” she said. “Our marriage was just the last of them.” Rees nodded. Although David had said nothing, he hadn’t liked it when Rees and Lydia moved into the large southwest-facing bedroom once shared by his parents. Lydia paused and added, “I wouldn’t ask this of you, but Mouse, well, she’s my sister in all but blood.”

Rees nodded and touched her wrist. “I know. And I promise you, I’ll be home as much as I can,” he said. “I won’t leave you alone more than necessary.” He didn’t want her to feel abandoned, as David did. And probably as Dolly had, although he had not thought about it like that before. But at least Dolly had grown up here, and when the fever took her, her mother and sisters had been at her bedside. Lydia was a stranger in Dugard.

“Go after him,” she said. “Talk to him. He needs you right now.”

“David?” Calling his son’s name, Rees pursued him outside. He had to trot to catch up and his boots slipped on the icy ground. “David, wait.” He followed the boy into the shadowy barn, redolent of hay and cattle.

“Leave me alone,” David said, turning his angry face away.

“David, it’s Mouse. This time we’re going to help Mouse.” Last spring Rees had tracked David, who had run away from his aunt and uncle, to Zion, where he had taken refuge. He knew Mouse. “She’s in trouble.”

David sat down upon a haycock and frowned at his father, not quite willing to surrender his anger. “Mouse? What happened?”

Rees sat down beside him. “We’re not sure. But she was sent away from Zion and now lives in Mount Unity, New York. She’s been accused of kidnapping.”

“Kidnapping?” David repeated. He shook his head. “I don’t believe it. She was so kind and gentle.”

“Yes,” agreed Rees, “I’m finding the accusation incredible myself.”

“When will you be back?” David avoided looking at his father, staring instead at the straw on the barn floor.

“I don’t know. As soon as I can be.…” Rees’s voice trailed off. “I’m sorry, David. You were counting on me, at least for the winter.”

“Yes. I expected you to ride away as soon as the weather turned warm.” David’s smiled was pinched. “But I understand. Of course you must go now. It’s Mouse. And you speak for those who can’t. You told me that.” Rees nodded, touched and embarrassed that David remembered. “You’ll save Mouse. I know that. You’ve a talent for unraveling such knots.” They were both silent a moment, reflecting upon Rees’s resolution of the murders in Zion and here in Dugard.

“I’m not … abandoning you,” Rees said, struggling to find the right words. “I trust you to run the farm. You’re a man now.” David said nothing, but a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. Rees impulsively reached over and put his hand on the back of his son’s neck. David twitched and for a moment Rees feared his son would shake off the fond gesture.

But David let his father’s hand remain. “You haven’t done that since I was a child,” he said.

Rees nodded. “I wasn’t sure you would allow it,” he said, self-conscious of the emotion in his voice. David’s white teeth bit his lower lip and he looked away, toward the black-and-white spotted cow in the stall. Frowning, he turned his gaze back to his father.

“What do I do if Aunt Caroline comes over?” he asked, switching to a less emotional topic. “What do I do if she tries to move in?”

Rees sighed. Anger and frustration always infused his thoughts of his sister, especially now that she expected him to support her and her family. Even the return of the deed to the Prentiss farm, which Rees had acquired and given to her, did not satisfy her.

“I’ll speak to George Potter and Constable Caldwell,” he replied. “If you have any trouble you apply to them for aid. She has no business on this farm.” Even though she felt entitled to it. “If necessary, ask Caldwell to speak to her.” David grimaced, still uncertain, but did not respond. “If she gives you too much trouble, I’ll deal with her when I come home.” Rees shivered and stood up, pulling his son up with him. “Let’s go inside. It’s cold out here. And it’s almost time for supper. I’m hungry. Are you?” David nodded and they returned to the kitchen together, not speaking but content with one another.

Copyright © 2014 by Eleanor Kuhns

Meet the Author

ELEANOR KUHNS is the 2011 winner of the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel competition. She lives in Campbell Hall, New York, received her master's in Library Science from Columbia University, and is currently the Assistant Director at the Goshen Public Library in Orange County, New York. Cradle to Grave is her third novel.

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